A leader of the conservative Muslim group Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI) on Tuesday rejected the U.S. State Department’s designation a day earlier that branded it a global terrorist group.
As a result of the official U.S. listing of MMI – known in Indonesian as Majelis Mujahideen Indonesia – American citizens are prohibited from engaging in financial transactions or dealings with the 500-member group, which is based in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta.
“I do not know how MMI can become a global terrorist [organization],” MMI Secretary-General Shabbarin Syakur told BenarNews on Tuesday. “We have not even conducted any activities for years and MMI is anti-ISIS (Islamic State).”
In a news release on Monday announcing the designation, the State Department said MMI was formed in 2000 by jailed Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, which also has been tagged by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization. Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian affiliate of al-Qaeda, has been blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings and other terrorist attacks targeting Indonesian cities.
The news release said MMI had conducted attacks in Indonesia, including claiming responsibility for a May 2012 attack at the launch of a book by Canadian author Irshad Manji, where three people were injured. It said MMI also had links to the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-affiliated group in Syria.
Shabbarin denied those allegations. He acknowledged visiting Syria in 2014 together with several MMI leaders to meet Islamic scholars, who were believed to be Islamic State (IS) members, but he said he had disagreements with them over their violent ideology.
“Some MMI leaders and I went to Syria and it was not for jihad (holy war) or joining any groups,” he said, explaining that MMI actively campaigned for the enforcement of Islamic law in Indonesia during the recent past, but lately has been inactive as an organization.
‘Makes no sense’
The global-terror designation for MMI also surprised Sidney Jones, a terrorism expert who directs the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a Jakarta think-tank.
She questioned the criteria used by the United States to come up with its conclusion.
“It makes no sense and it’s outrageous [that MMI] is labeled a terrorist organization, while it has never committed any violence,” Jones told BenarNews.
Thayep Malik, a researcher from the Jakarta-based think-tank Prasasti Perdamaian Foundation, which focuses on security issues, also raised doubts on MMI’s designation as a global terrorist group.
MMI has had no relationship with Abu Bakar Bashir for a long time, Thayep said.
“It’s true that MMI is a ‘jihad’ organization and some of its senior members have been involved in acts of terror, but the allegation needs to be based on an objective assessment,” Thayep told BenarNews.
Regarding the group’s alleged link to the al-Nusra Front, Thayep said MMI member Ridwan Abdul Hayyie indeed went to Syria to join the terror group, “but it is uncertain whether he left for Syria to represent the MMI or (to fulfill) his personal desire.”
Ridwan, son of MMI leader Abu Jibril, was found dead after a gun battle between al-Nusra and Syria’s Arab National Army (SAA) in 2015.
‘A significant risk’
MMI’s special designation as a terror group alerts the American public and the international community that it poses “a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism that threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States,” the State Department ease said in its news release.
National police spokesman Setyo Wasisto and Irfan Idriss, spokesman for the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT), could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
The MMI designation came as military officials announced that Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, had taken steps to bolster its security along its sea border with the southern Philippines, where IS-inspired militants have been engaged in more than three weeks of clashes with Filipino security forces in the city of Marawi.